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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Showcase Code: Why Use Equity Actors?

In a post below, I commented yet again that the Showcase Code needs reform in order to reflect the changing economics and realities of theatre in New York City. Posed was a question that seems so obvious that I'd basically overlooked it... here it is, from Commentor David D. (You can see his entire post and the original discussion here.)

"I have mixed feelings about Showcase Code in New York City- I do think that there could be more middle steps between Showcase and the Off-Broadway contract, which is currently too large of a gap.

But I do feel like this question needs to be posed: I am not trying to put myself out of work, or-- well out of Showcase, at least-- but as Showcase Code keeps being raised as the Bugbear of the indie theatre scene, I think we need to stop and ask: Why do you have to have Equity actors in your show? If the play or the theatrical concept (I suppose the latter term I am using to cover things like Improv or Alternative comedy stage shows), if what you have for the audience is original and interesting enough to carry more than 16 performances and the production is not being produced just to Showcase actors seeking representation or paid work but rather to launch a new play or piece, then why not do it without Equity members?"

I think this is worthy of a discussion: What do Indie Theatre producers stand to gain by using Equity actors? The "Showcase Code" was designed to treat all less than scale paying jobs simply as opportunities for actors to show off their wares to agents. That intent may be a far cry from what the Showcase Code has become in practice in 2006, but the rules still essentially say "Pay the actors or do not use them." Fair enough.

James Comtois recently used an all Non-Equity cast, which means "Nervous Boy" can be seen again this year without an issue. "The Most Wonderful Love" had five Equity members in a cast of nine, which means it can't be seen again in this form for one year in New York City (as far as I understand.) I don't regret a single casting choice: I regret that we couldn't build the show further from the momentum it had started to gather, for myself, and for the cast.

For the sake of discussion, what would happen if Indie producers stopped using Equity actors entirely tomorrow? A complete moratorium on Equity actors, so that shows could run more than 16 performances without penalties. Would Actor's working outside of any union restrictions find themselves repeated taken advantage of? Would the union lose members because the ability to perform in New York would be limited by Equity membership? Would the scale of the Summer Festival scene (The Brick's Annual Festival, the Midtown International Fringe Festival, the Fringe Festival, etc.) be massively reduced, for example? Who would suffer more...Equity actors or Producers, Directors and Playwrights?

Let's talk about this.

13 comments:

Jamespeak said...

Who would suffer more if indie producers stopped using Equity actors entirely tomorrow? I can’t speak for everyone, but for my company (Nosedive), it wouldn’t hurt/hinder us at all. As you pointed out, we staged our last show without any union members, which allows us the option of staging the show again in the city within the year. The only drawback for Nosedive, as I see it, is when a regular actor in our group joins Equity (this has happened a handful of times and I think one of those rules of the game when you do this long enough: eventually, your people will get their Equity Cards). Aside from that, from where I see it, indie playwrights, directors and producers lose virtually nothing from only using non-union actors.

I mean, we’re staging stuff with or without Equity members, period. If the AEA is going to make casting its members too much of a colossal pain in the ass (and, to me, it’s sure looking like that more and more as time goes on) for the indie companies, then the indie companies will eventually stop casting its members.

MattJ said...

Great question Matt. I mean, if you look around the off and off-off scene you really see that both scenes are relatively saturated with AEA. My intuition tells me that if Indie theatre started only casting non-equity, the actors would suffer the most. By taking that away from the AEA, they end u with off-broadway and Broadway. Imagine if the rest of us who arent actors had to do that! Getting into equity would become very difficult after awhile and getting a job as an AEA member would likely feel imossible to its members. But i dont have answers. It seems as if something inside the system needs to change rather than small theatre comanies just refusing to cast AEA...

Ian said...

This is an interesting question. It seems to me that lots of theatre gets produced in this town without any AEA members at all and does just fine; I did a couple shows like that myself in my non-AEA days, and one of 'em landed on the front page of the Arts section of the Times. So I'd say, if you want to produce non-Eq, go for it. But there will always be a need for some kind of AEA agreement that makes it feasible to do small-scale work in NYC, so I think giving up on the Showcase code entirely is not the way to go. I think there are things to consider when going "off the AEA grid", these aren't necessarily bad, just trade-offs to think about when you consider a completely non-Eq arrangement:

Age and experience: The vast majority of non-AEA actors are young and green. They could also be wildly talented. But generally speaking, let's be honest, there are very few actors over 40 without AEA cards who are worth casting. The few that are worth casting are in very, very high demand among the smaller companies. In my little niche of the theatre world, where the focus is on classics, you really need trained, seasoned performers who are up to the play, and that means keeping the door open to AEA members.

Legitimacy, Growth, and Stability - I was just in a play that got a mixed review in the NY Times, stating that some of the performances were "amateurish" and citing the fact that only 5 of us were AEA as the culprit. Like it or not, union members in your cast give the project legitimacy that it is otherwise hard to come by. Not an insurmountable obstacle, but be prepared for people assuming you've got a lot more moxie than ability, at least at first.
Staying out of the union also means your company will never grow beyond a shoestring operation; if you get much bigger than that AEA will force you to organize or shut down (been there, seen it happen). This is only fair, really: actors bust their wazoos in productions and the union is there to make sure that if a company starts to be remunerative, the actors get a piece. But if you get that big hit show and an angel descends and says, "Come, come to my off-Broadway theatre, and earn a salary", do not think for a minute that your company will simply get handed their cards and a ticket uptown. No, you will have to dump the non-union cast and recast with AEA members to move on up (See "The Encyclopedia of Non-Eqs Getting Screwed", under "Urinetown"). So, really, if you want to make any kind of an impact beyond small, little-seen productions, you're gonna have to waltz with the union.
Stability is also a problem; if you want to maintain any sort of long-term artistic relationships with actors, you'll have to work with them under union jurisdiction eventually, unless they commit to working entirely non-union forever for no money. And seriously, what actor would choose that? Any actor who wants to make a living in his/her field is going to be in hot pursuit of his/her Equity card the moment it behooves him/her to obtain it. And who can blame him/her? It would be very hard for a company to grow and form solid artistic relationships when they are constantly relying on a revolving door of mostly young non-Eqs, constantly heading out when they get their cards. As soon as the time was right, I grabbed my card and never looked back. We all want to get paid for what we do. I think it's OK for a company to want to grow and keep an eye on the box office, and I think it's important that we strive to make a living at what we do: we deserve to, after all, and I think there'd be something sad in simply resolving to be small, underpaid and overworked. So, yeah, steer clear of the Showcase code for now if it's in your way, and by all means work to revise it so it reflects the realities of producing, but I think abandoning AEA is at best a temporary solution, and in the long term a guarantee that you will be on precisely the same economic treadmill in five years. I, for one, would prefer a change of treadmill now and again.

devore said...

Doesn't Equity have a notoriously low employment rate? Like 15 percent f it's members make a living?

The concept of the showcase code is flawed -- how many off-off, showcase code productions get infusions of money from magical angel producers?

There has got to be a way, and it does involve equity members, to create a contract that makes actors involved semi-producers. Investors.

Word of mouth is the only way to sell a show. And in order to do that, you have to give an audience the time, which is to say the choice, as to when they can attend.

The longer your product (providing it's good) stays on the market, the better chance it has of gaining momentum, of people telling other people that it's worth the money.

Lucas Krech said...

The biggest problem would occur in the event of a highly successful show. If you have a hit on your hands and an [Off-]Broadway producer wants to pick it up, all non-AEA get dropped faster than you can say union. This is a protection for AEA actors as, I believe, right of first refusal on a transfer is built into the Showcase contract. But such a clause is non-binding for an actor not in the union.

With an equity production the show could be remounted on and Off-B'way contract no problem. In a way it comes down to what are you looking for. If you want to do small indie works and leave it at that, go non union, but if you want the chance to transfer, you will have to contend with union rules at some point.

YS said...

Equity is a strange bird here in Boston.

I started my non AEA theatre company about 9 Years ago, and many of the regular and recurring members of the group have gone on to Equity.

In fact, out of the non-AEA cast of our first Boston production. I think 4 have gone on to Equity, and one is well on the way with points. When people bring up quality and talent, I always want to ask, "So were those actors remarkably untalented or unprofessional when they were acting for me, and I just didn't know it?"

Several of these people have moved on to Chicago and DC. Last year, two actors I know were desperately scrambling to do a few more Non AEA productions once they had reached the magic points limit. They know that the Equity badge brings a severe limitation in artistic opportunities in Boston.

There was an article a few years ago about a couple of New England Actresses, one of whom was resigning her Equity card because it was very hard for her to get work.

That being said, there are the benefits of being able to attend the Equity Only auditions, etc.

Boston's midsized theatres operate on an special New England contract. A contract that Equity threatens to scrap every few years.

Basically, Equity's argument is this: Hey we've given you guys less than scale contracts for almost a decade in order to get established, it is time for you to pony up and start paying our members more.

Basically, the Theatres' respond this way: Hey if we have to pay a full cast, full scale, we are either going to fold or maybe produce far less productions with far less people in them.

The theatres usually win this argument.

Ian W. Hill said...

Well, if I had to stop using AEA actors in my shows, I would suffer from having to eliminate some of my favorite actors from the acting "pool" that I go to first when casting my shows. Including myself (though it appears AEA doesn't give a damn about the Showcase code if the only AEA person in the cast is also the producer of the show).

And, indeed, I've directed two or three shows where I had to drop AEA actors from the cast when I couldn't afford insurance. I love the AEA people I work with, but no, I don't regard them as any more experienced or professional as the non-AEA people I also work with.

Of course, as an AEA actor who also produces theatre, I do not have the same standing in the union as my brothers and sisters -- with the first Showcase I produced after getting my card,I got a letter informing me that as I had "chosen" to become a producer, I was no longer allowed to come to certain AEA meetings where I might not have the best interests of my fellow union members at heart.

Great. So I guess AEA would take the same attitude from me as a member who also wants the code changed to something more reasonable (as I'm told other areas of the USA have).

I've been, a number of times, in situations where AEA actors actually LOST money by not being able to do a show, or be in the extension of a show, as while they would be making money, it wouldn't be enough by AEA rules.

I dunno . . . I keep thinking there has to be some kind of "profit-sharing" arrangement with the cast that could be made if a show extends and actually turns a profit, but I also can't think of any reasonable way that could be monitored and enforced . . .

Freeman said...

Interesting discussion thus far.

One comment I'd add is that many shows that are treated as "Showcases" are now less powerful Showcases for the actors involved, because the city is flooded with them and it takes more than 16 weeks to develop buzz and convince industry to come. That is not only for the playwright/directors/producers...that is for the actors.

If Equity views the Showcase Code as a way to allow actors to showcase their talents with "vanity productions," then they are (besides completely out of touch) not allowing those productions to do exactly what they are intended to from the unions perspective.

Word of mouth takes time and momentum. Almost all the plays in the New York City that feature Equity actors are prohibited from building that sort of momentum.

We need to build a tier above Showcase that protects actors and allows shows to live in the marketplace.

Ian said...

Another thing to consider is the fact that Showcases almost never work as showcases because industry people don't go to them. Those agents and casting folks I've known long enough to get a straight answer from all say the same thing - nothing, not an earthquake, not a fire, not an act of God, nothing will get them to give up an evening to see a showcase. They don't need to, and they don't want to. The incredibly rare exception is when an agent has a client in a showcase and goes to see said client so that they can honestly say to a casting director, "Yeah, I just saw her play *blankety blank* last week and she was great. You should see her". Otherwise, heads up, folks: NO ONE WHO CAN ADVANCE YOUR CAREER WILL SEE YOUR SHOWCASE. EVER. The best thing a showcase can do, career-wise, is get you noticed in a widely-read publication of some sort, so that you can legitimately leverage good press and hopefully get some auditions out of it. I think the problem AEA has is that showcases don't work, at least they don't do what they were created to do (get members seen by bigwigs), but the truth is no one knows how to fix it. AEA is opposed to its members working for free - if they weren't it would defeat their purpose as a trade union. They don't want shows being put on unless the members are getting a salary, but actors are the only people on earth who would rather work for free than not work at all. So we insist on having showcases available to us, even though they can't do what they're supposed to (get members seen by bigwigs). The only reason the union allows showcases at all is because, ostensibly, there is a benefit that actors are receiving that outweighs the lack of salary (bigwigs: access to) and since no one else is making any money, the union can allow it in good conscience without feeling like money is somehow being made on the backs of the actors. Asking the union to create something else (say, an "Indie" code) would mean the union would have to understand what the benefit to members would be: if industry presence (bigwigs ho!) isn't the point, and the only possibility of being paid is through profit sharing (do any of these productions turn a profit? What's 15% of jack?) then why should they want their members to be able to do these shows?

Seems to me like they'd have to see a guarantee of a stipend or something against a cut of the profits in order for it to make sense to them, because they ain't gonna buy the "we just want to make great art" argument. Money+pockets of members = happy union. Money - pockets of members + even one thin dime going into anyone else's coffers for any reason = angry, angry union.

Scott Walters said...

AEA is operating from an early-20th century orientation: they represent "workers" who are hired by "employers" who must pay certain "salaries" and certain "benefits." So here's my question: how many of AEA members think of themselves as employees rather than artists?

Artists work -- period. A young novelist writes and writes and writes at all hours and all days of the week, and he does so for no money at all...until he gets a publisher interested. The same is true with painters and poets and musicians. But actors...can't keep in "shape" because they are forbidden to work out, as it were, by AEA.

I think the whole damn thing needs to be rethought. AEA, and all the other unions associated with theatre, are choking it to death as surely as short-sighted producers, idiotic critics, and high ticket prices.

Anonymous said...

How many Equity actors are getting their insurance from the union? That's the first thing.
It can't be many, especially if statistics show the majority of actors in equity are unemployed. So, I think Equity actors need to decide to skip the union. It's time to move on. Also - Chicago has some of the most talented non union actors out there. It's also cheaper to produce. Why not network and coproduce there and then import to here.

Anonymous said...

Ian -

Equity only steps in if you're going to B-way or a B-way house. B-way stinks now anyway.
1500 seat theatre...yuck! There are plenty of places to perform great theatre in sizeable houses and Equity doesn't need to be involved.

Ian said...

In response to Anonymous, who raises some interesting points:

I got my health insurance from Equity for a while. It lapsed, of course, and it was something of a minor miracle that I got it at all, considering how hard it is to qualify. This is not really AEA's fault, all things considered, because the ridiculous way health care costs are spiralling left them with no other option but to raise the number of weeks, otherwise they wouldn't be able to keep up the premiums and the entire health plan would have collapsed. This is a huge nationwide problem, and a whole lot of reform will have to take place to change it. But I would guess that at most the health plan covers maybe 2-3000 union members at any one time (and that's counting those who go on COBRA). AEA did score a major victory getting the state to pass the Artists COBRA Subsidy plan, which made COBRA (just barely) affordable again, at least for actor-types. We here in the USA need to get rid of the idea that your access to health care is something that is given to you by an employer. Though I don't entirely know what the answer is.

Chicago is, from my little experience of it, a great theatre town, and one that has a great deal of non-union activity. All of the major houses, though, have AEA contracts (Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakes, Goodman, Court) though they also use some number of non-union actors. Is it possible to live in Chicago as a full-time working actor on the salaries that non-Eqs get there? If so, then clearly we need to look at how/why Chicago theatre is able to make that work, as it may be a model for the rest of us. I'm not sure I would bother with a plan that started things in Chi and moved them to NYC - we in NYC get nearsighted and forget that the Big Apple is not the only place you can do theatre and legitimately call yourself an actor. We get NYC-centric and hung up on the idea of succeeding here as the only thing that counts. There's lots of worthwhile stuff all over the country that doesn't need to move to NYC for validation.

Now, as for AEA caring exclusively about Broadway, well, can't argue much with that. Although, having worked off-Broadway, they do seem to care a fair bit about that too. Part of the problem we're running into here in NYC is AEA doesn't offer us the flexibility to work with different contracts that other cities take for granted. The Washington DC area has more AEA contracts each year than any other city except NYC (Yup, more than Chi). I worked there for a few years and still had to come back to NYC (Sure, they've got lots of contracts, but you still have to be in NYC to audition for most of them) but between 4 different LORT tiers and 8 different SPT tiers there was a huge amount of room for theatres of all sizes to go on AEA contracts. It wasn't a perfect system, for reasons too numerous to go into here, but it was a damn sight better than the "feast or famine" trap NYC was in. One of the tradeoffs, though, was that no showcases were allowed - even if it was a low-tier SPT contract where the actors were getting $115 a week, they had to be paid something, and that was certainly an expense. But for an ambitious company who can do a little extra fundraising, it was ideal. I can't imagine what would get me to live in DC again (love the theater scene, hate the city) but it does make you wonder if SPT is a viable option for NYC theatres.